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Sunday, November 23

War at Sea, Part 4: With Somali pirates in the Land of Punt

Note: John Batchelor will be interviewing Robert Wright of the Financial Times tonight re the Somalia pirate coast and the hijacking of Saudi-owned Suezmac tanker Sirius Star (now held for ransom), re the 95 attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden, re the shipping costs rise, re the emergency in Suez.

Interview time: 9:05 PM Pacific Time, KFI-60 AM radio: online link. Complete show schedule
They say travel is broadening; war is even more so. All right, we're going to have to become acquainted with the Land of Punt, as the ancient Egyptians called it, or as it's known today, Puntland. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
Much of the piracy seems to be based out of the Puntland, a semiautonomous region on the northern shore of Somalia that broke away from Somalia soon after 1991. [...]

United Nations monitoring reports on arms smuggling in the Horn of Africa have pointed to evidence that pirate gangs have established relations with corrupt officials of the Puntland government. They bribe port officials to allow the pirates to use Eyl and other ports as their bases of operation, and to bring some of their captured ships in for safekeeping while the pirates negotiate ransoms with the ships' owners.
To give you some idea of why it's been child's play for the Somali pirates to take over Puntland, "The pirates actually have an income of $30m per year, $10m greater than that of Puntland as a whole," according to Wikipedia's article on Puntland.

I'd say that $30m is a conservative estimate of the profits made by the thousands of pirates operating in the region; in any event they have a government at their command. It seems the only competition for their influence-buying comes from transnational oil companies, whose explorations in Puntland are highly controversial.

So what else is new? A dirt-poor region wracked by clan and tribal rivalries, bathed in the blood of conflicts between chieftains, with foreign business looking the other way as the chiefs skims profit from organized crime.

You'd think that after maybe fifty or sixty thousand years the people in that region would say, 'You know, this chieftain model of government has outlived its day,' but no, they're the Wise Man; they know it all. We're older than you. We're in the Bible. Don't tell us what to do.

Where was I? The 21st century. Pirates. The Christian Science Monitor Q&A report on Somali piracy cited above is chock full of helpful information that set to rest some of my questions:

As I suspected, the majority of pirates are not simple fishermen:
Today's pirates are mainly fighters for Somalia's many warlord factions, who have fought each other for control of the country since the collapse of the Siad Barre government in 1991. [...]

There is also evidence that expatriate Somalis living in Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Persian Gulf may be feeding information to the pirates about ships that have docked in those regions and may be heading toward the Gulf of Aden and other pirate-infested areas.
CSM sources find little evidence to support claims that local Islamists have begun to use piracy as a source of funds of weapons"
Certainly, Islamist groups such as Al Shabab – an insurgent group formed after the Islamic Courts Union lost control of the country last year in the wake of a US-backed invasion by Somalia's neighbor, Ethiopia – have used pirate gangs to smuggle weapons into Somalia, which is currently under international weapons sanctions. But the evidence is thin, as yet, that Islamist groups are using piracy on the high seas as a funding mechanism.
Okay; but I'm having a hard time buying this argument:
"The last thing the Islamists want to do is give an unnecessary provocation to the major powers, who might come after them in a big way," says Richard Cornwell, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Tshwane. "What experience tells us is that if the Islamists did take control of Somalia, piracy would stop overnight. They don't want warlords gaining arms and money outside of their control."
That may have been true a few years ago but the profits are now too big to assume that al Qaeda or other terror groups would forego that line of income; they'd simply take control of the gangs.

And I have read nothing to allay my concern that shipping industry reluctance to treat piracy as warfare opens the door to using pirate attacks as a cover for terrorism.

A Washington Post report on pirate insurance ends with the ridiculously upbeat observation:
Once the pirates are under control, insurance premiums will slide back to previous levels, and third-party security details won't be necessary. Unlike in the movies, the navy is still more powerful than a pirate militia.
Here is the reality, from the CSM report:
"What staggered the mind [about the Sirius Star hijacking] is that this capture was 400 nautical miles out to sea," says Mr. Cornwell. "That's far deeper water than anything we've seen before. But with a GPS they can hijack to order." Using a mother ship – often an old Russian trawler – to prowl deeper waters for their target, they can offload smaller boats to move in close and overtake the ship, and climb up with hooks and ladders, and submachine guns. [...] given the size of the territory, and the amount of shipping traffic that flows past Somalia from the Suez Canal, naval patrolling cannot guarantee the safety of commercial vessels.

"Unless you have a warship in the immediate area, and, crucially, with a helicopter, you've got no chance of stopping them," says Cornwell.
And ramifications of the piracy continue to widen, like the rings from a stone cast in a pond:
Egypt hosted a Nov. 20 emergency meeting with Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Jordan to try to forge a joint strategy against piracy, which threatens a crucial international trade route through the Suez Canal in the Red Sea – Egypt's key source of revenue.
Ominously, Iraq's defense minister warns that a premature U.S. pullout would expose Iraq to the danger of piracy in the Persian Gulf. From International Herald Tribune:
Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi says U.S. forces currently protect Iraqi ports and their hasty withdrawal would have "grave consequences" and endanger Iraq's security and sovereignty.

He told reporters Saturday that an early pullout would allow the kind of rampant piracy taking place in the Gulf of Aden to happen in the Persian Gulf. [...]

Iraq exports oil from its southern port of Basra. Iraq depends on oil for more than 90 percent of its national budget.
The CSM report explains that oil tankers are attractive targets:
"With a fully laden tanker ship, you have a fairly low free board, so it is easy to get up on board from smaller boats," says Cornwell. "Tankers are an obvious target of opportunity."
And crew are understandably reluctant to start a firefight on a ship loaded with highly flammable cargo.

The ramifications of the piracy for Somalia only add to the tragedy of that sorry collection of overlapping tribal regions:
Somalia is under international weapons sanctions, and warlord groups continue to fight both against the Ethiopian peacekeeping mission and against each other. But an influx of money is likely to mean a further influx of weapons to an already wartorn land.

"Regionally, I think the major problem is that piracy has given some groups the chance to lay their hands on money," says [Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane]. "There may be $30 million in ransom money received in recent years. Once they [the various armed groups] get that kind of money, they can buy a ground-to-air missile. Getting [a hold of] arms can affect the struggle for freedom in Somalia, and that affects the whole region."
And of course what affects the whole region affects us all. Life in the 21st Century.

War at Sea
Part 1, October 24
Part 2, November 18
Part 3, November 21

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